Almost one year ago we launched a study of how people understand “noncommercial use.” The study, generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, included in-depth interviews and two waves of in-person and online focus groups and online questionnaires. The last included a random sample of U.S. (geographic restriction mandated by resource constraints) internet users and in an extended form, open questionnaires promoted via this blog (called “CC Friends & Family” in the report).
Today, we’re publishing the Defining Noncommercial study report and raw data, released under a CC Attribution license and CC0 public domain waiver respectively — yes, this report on “noncommercial” may unambiguously be used for commercial purposes. Also see today’s press release.
Creative Commons noncommercial licenses include a definition of commercial use, which precludes use of rights granted for commercial purposes:
… in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.
The majority of respondents (87% of creators, 85% of users) replied that the definition was “essentially the same as” (43% of creators, 42% of users) or “different from but still compatible with” (44% of creators, 43% of users) theirs. Only 7% of creators and 11% of users replied that the term was “different from and incompatible with” their definition; 6% or creators and 4% of users replied “don’t know/not sure.” 74% and 77% of creators and users respectively think others share their definition and only 13% of creators and 11% of users wanted to change their definition after completing the questionnaire.
On a scale of 1-100 where 1 is “definitely noncommercial” and 100 is “definitely commercial” creators and users (84.6 and 82.6, respectively) both rate uses in connection with online advertising generally as “commercial.” However, more specific use cases revealed that many interpretations are fact-specific. For example, creators and users gave the specific use case “not-for-profit organization uses work on its site, organization makes enough money from ads to cover hosting costs” ratings of 59.2 and 71.7, respectively.
On the same scale, creators and users (89.4 and 91.7, respectively) both rate uses in which money is made as being commercial, yet again those ratings are lower in use cases specifying cost recovery or use by not-for-profits. Finally, both groups rate “personal or private” use as noncommercial, though creators did so less strongly than users (24.3 and 16.0, respectively, on the same scale).
In open access polls, CC’s global network of “friends and family” rate some uses differently from the U.S. online population—although direct empirical comparisons may not be drawn from these data. For example, creators and users in these polls rate uses by not-for-profit organizations with advertisements as a means of cost recovery at 35.7 and 40.3, respectively — somewhat more noncommercial. They also rate “personal or private” use as strongly noncommercial—8.2 and 7.8, respectively — again on a scale of 1-100 where 1 is “definitely noncommercial” and 100 is “definitely commercial.”
The below is drawn from the Section 4 of the report, titled “Next” — we urge you to read that section for more, including ideas for future research.
Import for Creative Commons noncommercial licenses
This process will include examination of whether the NC term should be usefully modified as a part of that effort, or if the better approach might be to adopt a “best practices” approach of articulating the commercial/noncommercial distinction for certain creator or user communities apart from the licenses themselves. Whichever the result, this study has highlighted that in order to meet the expectations of licensors using CC NC licenses it will be important to avoid any modification of the term, however manifested, that makes a use widely agreed to be commercial — or only agreed to be noncommercial with low consensus — explicitly noncommercial. There is an analogue in our statement of intent for CC Attribution-ShareAlike, which provides assurances that we will not break the expectations of licensors whose intent is to release works under copyleft terms.
While the costs of license proliferation are already widely appreciated and resisted by many, the study weighs against any lingering temptation to offer multiple flavors of NC licenses due to strong agreement on the commerciality of certain use cases that, in the past, may have been considered by some to be good candidates for splitting off into specialized versions of the NC term, such as online advertising. For even in those cases where strong agreement may appear to exist upon initial inquiry, such as with online advertising, nuances and sometimes strong differences of opinion are immediately revealed when more specific use cases are tested and facts presented — such as those involving cost recovery or support of nonprofit organizations.
The study results also advise against any concerted effort by CC to attempt appeasing all license users, all the time — study participants are divided over the value of more or fewer specific “use cases” to delineate the commercial/noncommercial divide, some see the lack of specific uses as a strength and others as a weakness, and many others still disagree with the notion that a single definition of noncommercial use could be workable. Thus is the challenge, and opportunity, of public license stewards.
Aside from decisions about the NC licenses themselves, we will be looking back to the study as we update explanations of noncommercial licensing on our license deeds, license chooser, and other materials. Your ideas and feedback are most welcome (see below).
Creative Commons recommendations on using noncommercial licenses
Overall, our NC licenses appear to be working rather well — they are our most popular licenses and we are not aware of a large number of disputes between licensors and licensees over the meaning of the term. The study hints at some of the potential reasons for this state of affairs, including that users are in some cases more conservative in their interpretation of what is noncommercial than are creators and that in some cases creators who earn more money from their work (i.e., have more reason to dispute questionable uses) are more liberal in their interpretation of what is noncommercial than are those who earn less.
While it would take a more focused and exhaustive study to conclude that these seemingly fortunate attitudinal differences are correct, strong, and global, they do hint at rules of thumb for licensors releasing works under NC licenses and licensees using works released under NC licenses — licensors should expect some uses of their works that would not meet the most stringently conservative definition of noncommercial, and licensees who are uncertain of whether their use is noncommercial should find a work to use that does unambiguously allow commercial use (e.g., licensed under CC BY, CC BY-SA, or in the public domain) or ask the licensor for specific permission (interestingly about half of respondents to the “CC Friends & Family” questionnaire who had released works under a NC license indicated that they had been contacted for specific permission). Note that this rule of thumb has an analogue in network protocol design and implementation known as the robustness principle or Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.”
One way to think about Creative Commons generally is of providing tools to prevent the failed sharing that results from relying on copyrights’ defaulting to “all rights reserved” — uses that you would allow but that will not occur because you haven’t authorized them (maybe haven’t even thought of them) and the costs of finding you and getting authorization are too high for the intended use (or maybe you’re dead and even scholarly use of your works is suppressed by your estate). This sounds dry, but think about the anti-network effects of failed sharing at the level of a society, and the costs are large indeed. Some have realized that too much use of NC licensing suppresses uses that a licensor who wants to share may wish to allow, at a cost to NC licensors and licensees and a greater cost to communities and the broader free culture movement — failed sharing, though at a much smaller scale than the failed sharing engendered by default copyright. The Definition of Free Cultural Works website includes an article summarizing reasons to avoid NC licenses (and use a free license such as CC BY or CC BY-SA). If you’re concerned about the costs of NC licensing to yourself, the free culture movement, or society at large, review the arguments and consider “dropping -NC” from your license.
The potential negative impact and corresponding lack of use of noncommercial licensing differs across fields. For example, noncommercial licenses do not exist at all in the free and open source software world (note that CC recommends using a free and open source software license for software). Science and education are two large fields in which we believe that liberal licensing or the public domain are most appropriate. Unsurprisingly Wikipedia, with strong relationships with the free software, open access (scientific publishing), and open education movements, mandates liberal licensing, and many other massively collaborative projects are following.
However, compelling use cases for NC licensing remain — most obviously when an existing significant revenue stream from a work would be compromised by release under liberal terms. Giving your audience legal certainty that they won’t be prosecuted for doing what comes naturally from using digital networks — copying and remixing for no commercial gain or monetary exchange — while exploring the sharing economy and still protecting existing business — these are great reasons to start or continue releasing works under a NC license. It is little surprise that major music and book publishers’ use of CC licensing thus far has almost exclusively been of the NC variety.
How to participate in the discussion
There are a variety of ways you can participate in discussion of this study, the future of CC NC licenses and accompanying material, and future research on this and other topics related to voluntary sharing:
- Leave a comment on this blog post.
- Add to the study’s Talk page on the wiki.
- Discuss on the CC Forum or cc-community mailing list.
- Subscribe to the very low volume cc-licenses mailing list to be alerted when the 4.0 process commences.
- Join the commons-research list to connect with researchers studying free culture topics.
- Send a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to everyone who has contributed in any way to this work!